Why you should care

Sometime soon Colombia will win an Oscar.

The Amazonian shaman stands in the center of the frame, the river before him, jungle all around. The water pulses, gentle at first but insistent, and then turbulent: A boat carrying a European man is heading ashore.

It’s a neat parallel to Colombia’s film scene, which has long been dominated by Hollywood films; last year, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 won the box office. But then there’s director Ciro Guerra, who’s made a career of going against the current. The 35-year-old makes arty, cinephile-magnet movies that are told from a different point of view than the average Hollywood blockbuster — that of Colombians. Perhaps ironically, the approach has garnered him plenty of international attention: His third feature, Embrace of the Serpent, could be the first-ever Colombian film to win an Oscar tonight. It’s already gotten raves at Cannes and effusive reviews. Quoth The New York Times: “Beautiful isn’t a strong enough word …”

I drink from cinema, but also from life.

I met Guerra last month at the Sundance Film Festival, where Embrace of the Serpent was part of a series highlighting the best of film festivals around the world. He speaks a slow, careful English and holds his face in a consistently stern pout, the look of a very serious filmmaker. When we connect on Skype later, Guerra wants to delve into the huge themes: the nature of knowledge, mythology and mysticism, exoticism. He is a cultural polyglot, happy to soak in Western influences as well as to draw from indigenous beliefs, African sources and Middle Eastern ideas. In his not-quite-native fluency, he says, “I drink from cinema, but also from life.”

Guerra is a “leading voice” in Colombian film, says Latin American cinemas scholar Nayibe Bermudez-Barrios. Even so, being a bigwig in Colombian film is akin to being a big fish in a small pond. Indeed, the 48-million-person country has a short film history compared to nearby Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil, and a smidgen of the resources besides. It’s not even a competition, Guerra says. Even now, most Colombian films don’t make it into theaters outside the country’s borders.

But structural problems are not the only ones. For a time, the vogue in Colombian cinema was for pornomiseria — literally, “misery porn” — but Guerra abjures those kind of tropes. Instead, Embrace of the Serpent deals in fantasy, mysticism and pre-Columbian history. Its protagonist, Karamakate, is the last living member of an Amazonian tribe, and he guides the search of two separate explorers, decades apart, for an elusive, healing flower. The diaries of 20th-century explorers in the Amazon constitute the source material, and the film itself echoes works like Heart of Darkness and the myth of Gilgamesh.

Ciro guerra1

Guerra glommed onto film as a little kid, and teenage encounters with the work of Federico Fellini and various South American auteurs made him reconsider what film could be; he realized it could go “beyond entertainment,” he says. He went to the only film school in Colombia, with a class of 30 peers. His whole lifetime, he says, he dreamed of filming in the Amazon. The region makes up much of Colombia, but it always seemed like a mystery to Guerra.

His work comes at a time when Colombian cinema is getting its sea legs. A little more than a decade ago, the film scene in Colombia got a boost in the form of the 2003 Law of Cinema, which taxes distributors, exhibitors and film producers, and allocates revenue to local film productions. Guerra’s film received a sponsorship and subsidy from the government, and Embrace of the Serpent was co-produced with money from not only Colombian production companies, but also Argentine and Venezuelan ones. Total budget: 1.4 million. It was a massive amount for a Colombian film Guerra shot his first film for $3,000, and without any outside support but a pittance compared to Hollywood blockbusters’ quarter-of-a-billion-dollar budgets.

And while most prognosticators don’t expect Embrace of the Serpent to win the best foreign-language film award tonight at the Oscars the money’s on the Holocaust story from Hungary, Son of Saul, or France’s Mustang — life’s definitely easier for Guerra these days. He and his wife have created their own film production company in Colombia, and Embrace’s success has earned him backing to fund a future project, a feature that will take place in the desert. So far, Embrace of the Serpent is his masterpiece, with its story of “two different men from different corners of the world coming together through knowledge,” he says. Fitting, to say the least.

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